[This post originally appeared on the TEL Education website on August 25, 2020]
In a recent post, I detailed several of the benefits associated with equity in education.
In short, equity in education leads to improved social mobility, increased education attainment by a greater portion of the population (particularly among disadvantaged youth), and an overall increase in the knowledge and skill level of the general workforce. Each of these benefits is a direct contributor to the economic productivity and health of a society, as well as its cultural and political stability.
I also outlined the multi-faceted framework that is required to achieve equity in education. This framework consists of five separate components: affordability, accessibility, high quality, low barriers to entry or access, and ease of use.
In this post, I want to elaborate further on the importance of affordability, which I perceive to be the single greatest barrier to achieving equity in education. My emphasis here is on opportunities in higher education, although many of the points here have close analogs in the K-12 space.
Let me begin with a simple definition of affordability for higher education. In this context, affordability means that:
- It can be paid for without undue financial or personal sacrifice. Affordability means affordability for every capable person. More specifically, someone working for an hourly wage at a retail store or similar job and who is willing to set aside a little money for education every month should be able to afford to take college-level courses while continuing to pay for food, shelter, and transportation.
- It does not require anyone to acquire or accumulate debt. For low-income families, debt, even with low-interest rates, can create yet another insurmountable barrier to success. Affordable education, affordable college, should not be dependent on having to borrow money.
- It does not require a sacrifice of quality. Affordable is not the same as “cheap” or “inferior.” Rather, it means that college-level education is attainable by anyone and that the quality of this education is high. It is college-level learning that does not sacrifice content, instructional value, and support. It is also education that provides demonstrable evidence of learning, which translates directly into professional opportunities.
- Its cost is transparent. People need to know that something advertised as affordable is indeed really affordable. This means that there cannot be any hidden or add-on costs or other pricing variations that are not clearly communicated upfront to everyone. To be clear, if you have to talk to someone so that they can explain the pricing, it’s not transparent enough.
Why Affordability Matters
Affordability matters because it is essential to encourage more families and their students to move forward with their education and, as a result, improve their socioeconomic status. Put differently, without truly affordable options for postsecondary learning, most families with a lower socioeconomic status (SES) will not make the choice to attend college or vocational training when the money could be spent on food or rent.
For families struggling to “get by,” every dollar matters, and every dollar spent on one thing generally means sacrificing somewhere else. Within this context, families prioritize essential expenditures that make sense to them. They also avoid investing their scarce resources in unfamiliar areas, such as postsecondary education. And, since low-SES families are less likely to have any postsecondary experience, they are often unfamiliar with the benefits of a college or vocational education.
Over time, this cycle—not pursuing post-secondary education because of unfamiliarity with it and its benefits—is self-perpetuating. The scarcity of family or other community members with postsecondary backgrounds makes it less likely that other families and their students will be aware of the benefits of a college or vocational education and thus, less likely to invest in it. A lack of community experience with college-level education also means that there will be fewer people to help low-SES students cross the cultural chasm to pursue postsecondary learning, to help explain, for example, the different steps associated with applying for college, registering for courses, or even figuring out what the different degree options are all about.
In my definition of affordability, I mentioned that it must not sacrifice quality. Unfortunately, the rising costs of tuition and the increasingly “unaffordability” of higher education lead many people to believe that quality education is necessarily expensive or, more important, more expensive than they can afford.
However, the high prices associated with higher education are not generally driven by a focus on the quality of learning but rather on maintaining the traditional cost structures of the institution or other factors not related to student learning.
The good news is that there are a growing number of institutions and organizations working to create new models for designing and delivering high-quality learning experiences that lead to college credit or other certificates. While these groups are achieving affordability and quality in their offerings with different products and business models, they share a common commitment to affordability as the anchor point of their work.